Five MENA policy challenges that go beyond ISIS

The current US presidential campaign debate on Middle East policy has focused disproportionately on the US response to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). This series will focus instead on five alternative Middle East policy challenges facing the next president. Each part below has been originally published at LobeLog.

Part 1: Promised Democracy: The Future of Iraq

Democracy is not illusive in Iraq. To help the war-torn country get there, however, the United States must finally engage in long-term thinking. In a departure from the policies of past administrations, the next president should support the democratic potential of Iraqi youth by exploring policy options geared toward the health of the country’s next generation.

At present, a central problem with the potential for democracy in Iraq has been the ethno-sectarian divisions that have become hyper-pronounced since the end of the Saddam Hussein era in 2003, encouraged by the demographically based institutions of Iraq’s 2005 constitution. The US-led invasion of Iraq weakened the state apparatus, which was further crippled by the policy of de-Ba’athification. These shortsighted policies rendered the Iraqi state unable and — under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — unwilling to continue basic social services, maintain an adequate security sector, or administer justice in a fair and nonsectarian manner. State service deficienciescreated an opportunity for non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, to gain the support of significant numbers of Iraqis by offering protection and community support via sectarian polarization. If the US continues to support sectarian groups, such as the Hashd al-Shaabi, to counter other sectarian groups perceived as more extreme, such as IS, that policy risks further entrenching civil strife in the country.

Moreover, during the past 13 years, short-sighted Iraqi elites have habitually engaged in wide-ranging corruption while extremist groups have engaged in criminal activity to obtain resources, weapons, and sectarian-based justice and security — all the while recruiting young Iraqis who have few options for supporting or starting their families. Indeed, the generation of Iraqis who know nothing beyond ethno-sectarian social divisions, violence, and widespread corruption poses the biggest threat to Iraq’s future potential for democratic governance. Those youth who can escape, thanks to financial resources or academic prowess, do so, leaving others to struggle in a poor economy and often with war-related mental illness.

Given divisive political structures, Kurdish plans for independence, and a rising transnational Shia identity, Iraq faces a severe existential crisis. Democracy researchers have long stressed the importance of trustwithin democratic culture: citizens must trust that competing groups share similar fundamental beliefs regarding the limits and roles of government. By sharing basic values — the continued existence of state and the right of competing groups to exist, for example — democratic societies limit the realm of violent conflict because violence is not necessary, and is too costly, to maintain a seat at the civic table. This is why demographic heterogeneity generally, though not inherently, hampers democratic consolidation. If Iraq’s challenges go unaddressed, the country’s youth will continue to mature with no trust for, shared values with, or tolerance of their compatriots of other ethnic and religious communities, making eventual democratization a fantasy.

As such, if the next US president is serious about supporting the Iraqi people, he or she must devote attention, resources, and long-term thinking to the next generation of Iraqis. By abandoning the bad habitof arming various belligerents in conflicts, Washington could help Iraq progress by promoting civil society and political participation (without counter-terrorism aims and conditions), and abstaining from policy contradictions.

More specifically, the United States should support a weapons buy-back program as a complement to traditional mechanisms for job creation, similar to one instituted in 2004 and supported by then-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Such an initiative would create a cash-flow avenue for Iraqis that does not stem from extremist groups and helps to reduce the hundreds of thousands of American weapons in the country. As young men with no money are generally the most dangerous demographic, efforts to spread wealth and remove weapons will support long-term stability.

Next, Washington should promote anti-corruption and security-sector reform. The goal here would be to kindle renewed trust among young Iraqis in the formal institutions of governance. If such institutions begin to administer impartial justice, young Iraqis will more likely support and seek the redress of these institutions. The state itself must undergo institutional reform processes — such as anti-corruption efforts and judicial capacity-building — in order to have the capacity to support the strengthening of accountability and access to justice in Iraq.

Lastly, US policy toward Iraq should encourage direct efforts to help Iraqi youth move past current conflicts and imagine their own Iraq. For their entire lives young Iraqis have witnessed ethno-sectarian discrimination by the Iraqi state apparatus or violent militias. Before any project can foster institutional trust in the state’s ability to fairly mete out benefits and punishments, the past must be addressed in some capacity, signaling to those who have felt wronged that accountability now exists for past transgressions. Conflict between ethnic and religious groups must be addressed in more localized truth-telling mechanisms, along with considerations for mixed dialogues, prayer sessions, and other events. Although conventional wisdom speaks of national post-conflict reconciliation to move beyond conflict and toward trust, the reality of more than a decade of violence in Iraqrequires locally-based reconciliation mechanisms, such as community truth-telling commissions and inter-faith prayer services.

By helping to address economic stress and the saturation of weapons, reform state institutions, and invest in reconciliation mechanisms, US policy can support local leaders in decreasing the influence of extremist groups among Iraqi youth, promote a safer daily existence, begin to re-build trust in government institutions, and advance democratic values and trust between the various ethno-religious groups in such a diverse country. This long-term, generational focus and investment in Iraq’s future is the only way US policy can effectively engage in the democracy promotion it claimed to support 13 years ago.


Part 2: Tunisia: New Leaders, Old Challenges

Although Tunisia has been largely absent from US headlines this year, the county’s fledgling democracy is at another important moment, where thoughtful US assistance can provide important encouragement toward stability. On August 29, 2016 Tunisia’s Assembly of the Representatives of the People approved a broadly diverse governmentunder the leadership of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, replacing former Prime Minister Habib Essid who lost a vote of no confidence in the previous month. A member of the secular Nidaa Tounes, the new prime minister nonetheless has the support of Ehnada, the country’s leading Islamist party. In the midst of yet another peaceful exchange of power since the 2011 overthrow of Ben Ali, Tunisia remains the Arab world’s best hope for stable democracy in the near term.

Since the passage of the 2014 constitution, ensuring the procedural standards of democracy — such as free and fair elections, broad participation, and power-sharing — seems to come easier to the North African country than solving problems such as the current economic crisis. At present, the country’s tourism industry continues to lag, and at least $2 billion have been lost to corruption. Although Chahed had pledged to fight corruption as a top priority and has incorporated labor unions into his government, many Tunisians remain skeptical that true reform will take place. They are weary of amnesty for corrupt officialsin the name of reconciliation and fear a backslide from democracy in the face of widespread economic injustice, including 35% youth unemployment and a concentration of 70% of the Tunisia’s extreme poor in the western region of the country.

What appears to be of greater interest for American policymakers are the security challenges facing Tunisia. Remarkably, Tunisia is the highest per-capita exporter of jihadists to the Islamic State, often through the porous border with Libya. Terrorist attacks within Tunisia have shown that violence flows both ways between the two North African countries. Extremism correlates with the high youth unemployment rates and school dropout rates, as well as the geographical and social inequalities found in Tunisia.

The Obama administration has offered assistance to Tunisia since Ben Ali fled, providing consistent loan guarantees almost annuallythereafter. For 2016, Congress and the Obama administration more than doubled assistance for Tunisia to $141.9 million, earmarked for security assistance, economic assistance, and democratic governance, in that order. Requests for 2017 come in at a similar level and distribution. A full 45% of the package would go to military purposes, whereas only 19% would be earmarked for democratic governance.

Given this emphasis on military assistance, Washington must be vigilant that American hardware be used to protect nascent democracy, not replace it. Nearby Egypt serves as a cautionary tale of how politically powerful a US-supported military can become. Care must be taken to not create a bloated security sector, as the influx of external resources generally re-shapes internal power balances.

Though Tunisia presents the greatest promise of democracy in the Arab world, its aid package from the United States is dwarfed by what goes to Israel and at least four other Arab countries: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. As the future of Tunisian assistance will soon fall to the new US president and Congress, this balance of aid distribution in the Middle East and North Africa should be reconsidered to reward and reflect America’s rhetorical preference toward democratic countries that protect a wide array of human rights.

US aid to Tunisia should focus more on curbing the causes and motivations of terrorism, rather than providing helicopters, large projectiles, and ammunition. American policymakers should further note that although highly corrupt autocracies are more stable than less corrupt ones, low-corruption democracies are actually the most stable. As Tunisia continues the transition from past authoritarian rule to democracy, the US should take the cause of mitigating corruption as a central prong in democracy promotion. This can be achieved by providing funding for the improvement of accounting and management practices within public sector institutions, thereby encouraging transparency within bureaucracies.

Providing aid with the intention of decreasing youth unemployment, inequality, and corruption would have a broader impact on Tunisia’s chance at maintaining democracy than weapons that could end up in the hands of the Islamic State or similar outfits, as has happened across the region. Tunisia has legitimate security concerns worthy of US assistance, but strengthening its fragile democracy should be the primary U.S. focus.


Part 3: Bilateral Complicity: The Next US President and Egypt

Earlier this month, the Egyptian state froze the financial assets of both individuals and organizations engaged in human rights advocacy, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Egyptian Center for the Right to Education, and their organizational leaders. This is merely the latest episode of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s suppression of dissent within the largest Arab country. The government has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, April 6 and other activist groups, journalists, labor unions, and nearly any organization accused of criticizing the president or the state.

Since 2014 al-Sisi and his allies have enacted problematic legislation onelections, terrorism, and non-profit organizations, among others. With the help of a complicit judiciary, these laws have created a largely rubber stamp parliament and have resulted in an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt. In 2016 alone, two toddlers have stood trial.

The US response to these developments in Egypt has been mixed, at best. Following the ouster of the democratically elected, though deeply flawed, Mohammed Morsi, the Obama administration suspended Washington’s large annual aid package of over $1.5 billion to Egypt in October 2013. To regain the financial and military aid, Egypt had to follow a “roadmap” to democracy. Less than 18 months later, the United States restored the aid despite no real steps toward democratic governance or widened civic participation in Cairo. Washington remains unsure how the aid has been spent.

Moreover, during those 18 months, Saudi Arabia pledged to substitute more aid to cover what the US cut, amounting to $4 billion. Beyond some strongly worded statements and diplomatic finger wagging, al-Sisi’s government has faced no concrete pushback from major allies for orchestrating the overthrow of a democratic government and establishing a regime intolerant of dissent and abusive of human rights.

As the Obama administration approaches its last winter, the future of US-Egypt relations inevitably hinges on the disposition of the next commander-in-chief. Against the advice of the DC think tank community, both major party candidates met with al-Sisi this week during the UN General Assembly session in New York. Notably, Republican nominee Donald Trump’s post-meeting release emphasized maintaining strong bilateral relations with Cairo but made no mention of human right or democracy.

In contrast, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton raised concerns aboutboth the rule of law and civil society in Egypt, mirroring statementsreleased earlier this year by Secretary of State John Kerry. But Clinton prefers working within the status quo of Egypt. During the Arab Spring protests, she cautioned Barack Obama not to support the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A Clinton White House is unlikely to depart greatly from the Obama White House on Egypt policy.

In general, human rights and good governance in Egypt take a back seat in Washington to counter-terrorism, safe passage through the Suez Canal, and peace with Israel. The most that can be hoped for in the next administration is the mitigation of the continuing oppressive authoritarianism of President al-Sisi, which will, if unabated, lead to increased violence and religious terrorism in the country and potentially beyond.

Indeed, research has shown that the quashing of religious liberty tends to breed religious terrorism, and legal and societal marginalizationleads populations toward violence as a means to achieve their political goals. By banning and victimizing the Muslim Brotherhood, attempting to control religious interpretation, and marginalizing all political dissent within the country, al-Sisi risks turning Egypt into a breeding ground for terrorism and political violence. This reality will create headaches for countries throughout the Middle East, as well as subsequent US presidents. Ironically, Washington’s endless pursuit of stability at the expense of human rights will likely result in an Egypt with neither stability nor human rights.


Part 4: America’s Outdated Special Relationship with Saudi Arabia

Like other longstanding American relationships in the Middle East, the ties between Washington and Riyadh have nothing to do with human rights or democracy. The alliance rests mostly on two key factors: natural resources and regional stability.

First, in addition to being the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the House of Saud is the custodian of a singular holy resource: oil. Saudi Arabia’s role as the largest exporter of the crucial fossil fuel, as well as its cultural and political influence over other six other Arab OPEC members, makes friendship with the kingdom a valuable, and seemingly indispensable, asset for a fuel-thirsty superpower.

Second, in the Cold-War era, maintaining a balance of power between Western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and Soviet allies such as Iran and Syria, was central to US policy in the region. Making overt advances in non-aligned countries like Egypt or through intermediary forces, such as supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran, was our preferred method of balancing Soviet influence in the region. In this context, retaining Saudi Arabia as a proxy for Western influence in the Arab world was an easy policy decision. Without American patronage, the Saudis might have turned to Russia. Further, although Saudi Arabia has no formal relations with Israel, unlike Egypt after the Camp David Accords, the Saudis have never used state force against Israel, making the kingdom more palatable to Washington.

Barack Obama’s administration has departed from the policies of its predecessors in being willing to equivocate in its dealings with Saudi Arabia. Obama has shown contempt toward the diplomatic assumption that he and the Saudis will present a common foreign policy in the region. The most dramatic example of this new approach was the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although he has not spurned all Saudi initiatives — he has backed the intervention in Yemen — Obama has been willing to diverge from Saudi interests, which has heightened the insecurity ofSaudi leaders.

Saudi Arabia has done much to warrant Obama’s hesitation. Since the passing of King Abdullah in 2015, King Salman and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman have intensified the simmering regional rivalry with Iran, attempting to counter the Shia nation in every theater in the region. Departing from post-9/11 reforms and moderations, the kingdom’s current leadership is now committed to either ignoring or supporting extremist Sunni theology.

Earlier this year Saudi Arabia suspended funding for the Lebanese army over the influence of Hezbollah in the country. Viewing the Houthis in Yemen as a proxy of Iran, Saudi has led an intervention in the country, generating accusations of war crimes against civilians in the process. In Saudi Arabia’s defense, Iran financially supports Hamasand maintains close ties with Hezbollah. The country has also played an enlarged role fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — often aligning with US interests. However, the extent of Iran’s role in Yemen is debatable. Nonetheless, German intelligence labels Saudi Arabia’s newfound activism in the region as “impulsive intervention.”

In the past two weeks, Congress has adopted a contradictory posture toward Saudi Arabia. It has pressed for both the declassification of a report that details the potential Saudi connection to the 9/11 attacks and on human rights violations within the Kingdom. It also overrode an Obama veto for the first time to pass a bill allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government as a potential enabler of the attacks. At the same time, Congress blocked an attempt to underminea $1.15 billion sale of military tanks to Riyadh.

In the post-Cold War world, the interests of Riyadh and Washington have increasingly diverged in the region. Obama is a pivotal figure. His term straddled the Arab Spring and the negotiations to end Iran’s nuclear program. The next administration must operate in a post-Arab Spring, post-Iran nuclear deal Middle East. If context, and not ideology, justified American ties with Saudi Arabia, new rationales must be found in this new regional context.

The first justification for the Washington-Riyadh relationship, the politics of oil, will undoubtedly remain an important factor for years to come. However, US per-capita consumption of foreign oil has been steadily decreasing for decades, with 2014 levels below 1994 levels. The declining importance of foreign oil for the US economy will allow future US presidents more room for policy divergence with foreign producers, such as Saudi Arabia.

The second justification, maintaining regional stability, is now an illusion. A nation or a region is politically “stable” when it is unlikely to change. In the context of the Cold War, where Western-approved dictators ruled largely docile publics, maintaining the status quo meant policy predictability. However, in the modern Middle East where Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen have no effective centralized government that can control the entire state territory, maintaining the status quo means prolonged violence and a proliferation of failed states. And although the Syrian civil war has given Russia a larger foothold in the region than Washington would prefer, Vladimir Putin is a far cry from reaching Soviet-era levels of patronage in the region.

If the next administration continues to free US Middle East policy from its Saudi-centric, Cold-War-era thinking, Washington will find that it has more flexibility in making a strategic approach to Iran, advancing human rights in the region, and effectively countering political and religious extremism, whether Sunni, Shia, or any other variety.

Part 5: Public Health as Foreign Policy: Trauma in the Arab World

If Washington wants to decrease volatility and violence in the Arab region, US foreign policy must advocate for the treatment of conflict-related mental health issues among Arab publics.

In the months after the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests in early 2011, President Barack Obama emphasized that the United States will continue to pursue core interests and principles, including opposing “the use of violence and repression” and “safe-guarding the security of the region.” Since that time, war, civil conflict, and political upheaval have spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Rather than arming specific groups or continuing to sell arms to repressive regimes, US foreign policy would be better served by more long-term, holistic approaches to combating violence and promoting security. One such approach would be mental-health advocacy.

At home, the United States is beginning to understand the importance of mental health: President Obama has several times allocated funds to bolster mental-health access and treatment in the United States — notably during his push to end gun violence, and again during his push to curb the opioid abuse epidemic in the country. Congress is currently considering over a dozen domestic mental-health-related pieces of legislation. Although the federal government has found that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) “is associated with an increased risk of violence,” no such connection has been made within foreign policy.

PTSD is the most common mental health issue resulting from episodes of combat, social upheaval, and violence found throughout many Arab countries. Although life-long PTSD is best predicted by the number of traumatic events experienced, trauma can result from violence, recurring memories, displacement, and ubiquitous fear. Using examples from around the world can be illustrative: During conflict inBurundi, war-related psychological distress was found in 44% of individuals studied during conflict and 29% two years after conflict, whereas 57% of Ugandan students exhibited “clinically significant” levels of PTSD four years after the end of war. In East Timor, grief and a sense of injustice “exerted a considerable effect on PTSD symptoms” among those studied. Researchers in Guatemala, meanwhile, found that community social psychology is important to understanding political and economic community development. Each conflict and cultural context produce different symptoms in victims, which vary in responses to trauma, requiring treatment to be as locally tailored as possible.

These findings suggest that PTSD and other trauma-related mental health issues resulting from widespread conflict are, and will be, a public health crisis in the Arab world. In Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon contemporary violence and conflict pre-date the Arab Spring. In Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the tumult of 2011 rages on as civil war. In Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere, the aftermath of political repression has been neither fully addressed nor resolved. Large portions of these communities have survived torture, witnessed murder, experienced political or religious oppression or discrimination, or have been displaced, abused, or exposed to traumatic violence. In what is undoubtedly the direst example from the Arab world, 45% of Syrian refugee children studied display symptoms of PTSD, 44% depression, 25% daily psychosomatic pains, and 20% daily headaches. Despite these limited studies, a vast majority of cases of trauma in the Arab world will go undiagnosed and untreated. Trauma among Arabs will have long-term consequences for both individuals and communities throughout the region for generations.

Prior to the Arab Spring, there was a surprising and troubling dearth of mental-health research in the Arab world. This is at least partly cultural: in Arab cultures mental-health problems are often ignored for fear for bringing shame and disgrace to both individual and family. This stigma is even greater among Arab men, who are discouraged from seeking help or being perceived as weak or dependent. Due to these cultural challenges, Arabs often express psychological problems in physical terms, thus avoiding the mental-health stigma and rejecting the few mental health services that may exist. In Tunisia, for example, physical manifestations of trauma have been linked to traumatic experiences. Any advocacy must be cognizant of these, and other, cultural sensitivities.

Trauma therapist and genocide survivor Esther Mujawayo argues that without addressing mental health, “Reconstructing a country becomes impossible, because people need to function well, but terrible memories are triggered by any small thing.” Untreated trauma can victimize future generations, lead to other public health concerns like childhood mortality rates, burden the national economy, and potentially perpetuate cycles of violence. Thus, attempts to foster sustainable growth and security in the region without considering mental health issues would be incomplete and likely unsuccessful.

Effective mental-health advocacy by outside actors must empower local officials to tackle the cultural taboos around mental health. Washington cannot dictate program specifics. However, if conversations about trauma are altogether avoided, social divisions will not begin to heal and future generations will learn nothing from the past. Treatmentshould include both community-based discourse and individually based treatment that respect local customs and can be used by local practitioners. One effective method used in Iraq includes “cognitive behavioral treatment provided entirely through the Internet,” which can allow for the treatment of a wider variety of individuals in dangerous or sparsely populated areas. Further, this can allow actors to address PTSD before conflicts fully end.

Advocating for, and materially supporting, mental-health treatment in conflict-affected Arab countries is a holistic foreign policy option for the United States. Supplementing such efforts, local and regional actors should create other post-conflict mechanisms, such has truth-telling programs and reconciliation efforts. Only by addressing the human element of conflict can the future overcome the past.